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Branches UMC to extend reach with Church & Society grant

Branches UMC to extend reach with Church & Society grant

FLORIDA CITY – Four years after fire destroyed the Branches UMC sanctuary, the congregation is not only going strong but celebrating the upcoming opening of a new worship center this summer.

And, as icing on the cake, the congregation is among 14 ministries in the U.S. and abroad to receive a Peace with Justice grant from the church’s General Board of Church & Society (GBCS).

“God has raised us from the ashes,” said Rev. Audrey Warren, the church’s pastor. She recalled how devastated members and neighbors were to find the charred remains of the church on May 23, 2010, and how many kept asking, “Will there still be a Branches tomorrow?” 

Steeple framework rises above building
A new church building is rising where the old Branches UMC stood before flames destroyed it four years ago today. Photos from Branches UMC, Florida City.

Not only are the church walls rising again, but the congregation’s ministry will branch out to offer new experiences intended to ease the tensions of a culturally and ethnically  diverse community and broaden the horizons of young immigrants.

The $5,000 award will be used to enhance the mission’s young adult ministry to educate and mobilize on behalf of immigrant rights and non-violence in the Florida City and Homestead areas that the church serves, according to a news release from GBCS. Most young adults in the Branches ministry are of Haitian, Hispanic and African American heritage.

For a church that, even with financial assistance from other supporting ministries, has struggled to keep going and rebuild, the grant comes as especially welcome news. Warren said the money will pay for much-needed curricula, programming and travel for the young adults, many of whom are caught up in a cycle of poverty and violence and have never traveled outside the state.

Among plans for the funding is a trip next spring to the nation’s capital to meet with GBCS representatives, the pastor said.

She estimated there are about 20 young adults participating in the Branches ministry, with about eight to 14 attending Wednesday evening worship at her home. Some of them also attend Sunday worship in a portable building on the church property, but most consider the Wednesday get-togethers as their weekly worship time, Warren said.

The grant money will allow the church to design and host education programs for people in the congregation and surrounding community less than an hour’s drive from Miami. Warren expects topics to include such challenges as racism, getting back on track after serving prison time and having access to higher education.

She said she also would like to see a component on human trafficking, as several in the young adult ministry know of family or friends who have been forced into field labor or prostitution.

“Miami is one of the largest hubs for sex trafficking in the world,” Warren said. 

Rev. Audrey Warren headshot"God has raised us from the ashes."
-- Rev. Audrey Warren

She hopes that community education events will expose the root causes of racism and help bring understanding to people who have not been so severely affected by poverty and immigrant status. She also anticipates that the grant will help build leadership skills and confidence in the young adult ministry participants.

“It’s actually the young adults who will be planning and forming those events,” she said.

Taking the lead in developing the new program could also be therapeutic, Warren said, explaining that channeling feelings of anger or frustration into positive actions for improvement will lead to constructive behavior.

That Branches is still here and making plans to tackle social justice issues is a credit not only to Jesus but to the “perseverance and resilience” of his disciples in the congregation, Warren said.

The day they arrived for worship and found the smoldering remains of a sanctuary, they met outside for prayer and continued meeting in tents on the church property for eight months until a portable building was placed on the site

“That’s really a powerful testimony,” Warren said. 

Branches congregation in front of portable building
Branches UMC worshipers meet in a portable building after fire destroyed their sanctuary in 2010. A new permanent sanctuary is on the rise and a new young adult ministry is in the works for the persevering Florida City congregation.

Branches is among ministries chosen by GBCS directors to receive part of nearly $50,000 in grant funding stemming from the denomination’s Peace with Justice Sunday last year, a special offering taken annually in local churches in June. Half of the collections goes to annual conferences to fund peace with justice programs, and half goes to GBCS to help fund social action, public policy education and advocacy in the U.S. and around the world.

This year’s Peace with Justice Sunday will be June 15.

To qualify for a Peace with Justice grant, applicants had to work toward achieving at least one of the following objectives:

• assist United Methodists in understanding and responding to violence and militarism;
• involve United Methodists in efforts to end conflicts and violent aggression around the world;
• promote just national and international policies and actions, governmental and non-governmental, seeking to restore communities and respond to the disproportionate effect of injustices on racial and ethnic persons; and
• support policies that promote systematic economic justice and the self-development of peoples.

To view the entire list of grant recipients, click here.

For more information, including application procedures, visit Peace with Justice Grants on the GBCS website or contact Rev. Neal Christie (, GBCS assistant general secretary for Education & Leadership Formation, (202) 488-5645.

* Information from Wayne Rhodes, editor of the General Board of Church & Society, was included in this report. Susan Green is the managing editor of Florida Conference Connection.